Red Bull Air Race: a growing sport


The world of extreme sports has reached major popularity in Southern California and among college students nationwide. They are often characterized as being loud, noisy, and dangerous. Onlookers tend to view action sports as somewhat of a novelty when compared to the more traditional and well-known games of America’s past.

Despite being a relatively new addition to sports fans’ realm of knowledge, the excitement and drama that they are capable of rival any fourth quarter drive or late inning rally.

The 2015 Red Bull Air Race in Las Vegas had all the theatrical elements which make sports so gripping. There was a diverse mix of competitors, as the field of pilots featured a wide age range and represented 11 different countries.

There was the looming possibility of a weather delay, as the desert skies opened up on the race’s final day, allowing steady rain and flashing lightning strikes to keep spectators on high alert. There was even a brief moment of comedy when one of the planes clipped an inflatable pylon during its run, drawing amusement from the crowd and frustration for the race team.

The Air Race series was created by Red Bull in 2003 as a way to showcase the world’s most skilled race pilots. The field consists of 14 pilots who compete against one another in eight races spread over the course of a year. The Red Bull Air Race tour takes them to eight different countries, including Japan, Croatia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Each race is comprised of the 14 pilots flying through a course of air gates arranged in a slalom-style setup. Points are earned for reaching the round of eight at a given race, at which point the six pilots with the slowest times are eliminated.

Once the field is whittled down to eight, the contestants fly the course again in an attempt to qualify for the final four.

The last four remaining fly once more to determine a winner. Winning an individual race warrants 12 points, with second place taking nine, and third place grabbing seven.

These points carry on throughout the season, and the pilot with the most points at the end of the eight races is crowned as the World Champion.

The chase for this year’s championship came down to the season’s final day, which happened to take place in Las Vegas. It was British flyer Paul Bonhomme who emerged victoriously, capturing his third World Championship at age 51. The weekend in Vegas turned Bonhomme into the sport’s only three-time champion, and also served as his entry point into retirement.

“I reckon now is a good time to stop,” Bonhomme said. “The flying and the opportunity to race has been utterly superb. Those moments in the track, in a well prepared race plane, is the ultimate flying experience.”

The next step for this growing enterprise is to have that ultimate flying experience translate into the ultimate viewing experience. Edward Alexander, a junior at the University of San Diego, watched the event on TV and was intrigued by its fast paced nature.

“I had never seen the Air Race before, or any sort of plane racing for that matter,” Alexander said. “I think it’s a really cool idea. It was very thrilling to watch the championship come down to a fraction of a second. I think this is definitely something that a young audience would be interested in because it doesn’t take a very long attention span to watch.”

“Watching one pilot complete the course takes less than a minute, so it’s not something that is going to take up a huge chunk of your day,” Alexander said. Also, as an engineering student I was fascinated by the planes and the fact that they are handmade.”

The process that goes into constructing one of these high-powered planes is a very exact science. A closer look at one of the machines shows just how intricate they are. Each of the planes comes equipped with a six-cylinder engine and carbon fiber wings. Add other important pieces such as a propeller, fuselage, rudder, and landing gear and you have a vehicle capable of reaching 230 miles per hour.

Much like NASCAR, it takes an entire team of specialists to make the planes run smoothly. Each pilot has a team behind him to ensure that the airplane is as safe and efficient as can be.

World Champion Paul Bonhomme was eager to congratulate his team after taking home the third championship trophy of his storied career.

“Smooth conditions, turbulent conditions, sun shining, cloudy, smooth weather, rough weather… you have to [endure all of it] if you want to do well,” Bonhomme said. “Why bother turning up if you are not going to give yourself the best chance of winning? It’s like spending a fortune on the finest ingredients for a meal and then forgetting to cook it. Our team wanted to win!”

Bonhomme’s team certainly got what it wanted, as a third grand prize is undoubtedly a perfect way to send the British pilot into his retirement. To accomplish it Bonhomme had to hold off Matt Hall of Australia. It was Hall who ended up winning the weekend, as he had the fastest times of the 14 pilots flying at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. However, with Bonhomme’s strong performances from earlier in the season he was able to accumulate the most total points of 2015.

Moving forward, Red Bull has its’ eyes set on expanding the Air Race to reach a wider audience.

As the myriad of international participants shows, the sport already has a global importance. For the youth of America to take to the skies, Red Bull would be wise to push for a spot in the Summer X Games, or perhaps down the road for air racing to be an Olympic sport.

For now, the Red Bull Air Race remains one of the sporting landscape’s best kept secrets. We’ve heard for years that drinking Red Bull gives you wings. They are now bringing these wings to the public, and doing so in the form of a captivating race scene.